Commentary on the Bible, by Adam Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
Stephen, being permitted to answer for himself relative to the charge of blasphemy brought against him by his accusers, gives a circumstantial relation of the call of Abraham, when he dwelt in Mesopotamia, in Charran, etc., Act 7:1-8. The history of Jacob and Joseph, Act 7:9-17. The persecution of their fathers in Egypt, Act 7:18, Act 7:19. The history of Moses and his acts till the exodus from Egypt, vv. 20-37. The rebellion and idolatry of the Israelites in the wilderness, Act 7:38-43 The erection of the tabernacle of witness, which continued till the time of David, Act 7:44-46. Of the temple built by Solomon for that God who cannot be confined to temples built by hands, Act 7:47-50. Being probably interrupted in the prosecution of his discourse, he urges home the charge of rebellion against God, persecution of his prophets, the murder of Christ, and neglect of their own law against them, Act 7:51-53. They are filled with indignation, and proceed to violence, Act 7:54. He sees the glory of God, and Christ at the right hand of the Father; and declares the glorious vision, Act 7:55, Act 7:56. They rush upon him, drag him out of the city, and stone him, Act 7:57, Act 7:58. He involves the Lord Jesus, prays for his murderers, and expires, Act 7:59, Act 7:60.
Are these things so? - Hast thou predicted the destruction of the temple? And hast thou said that Jesus of Nazareth shall change our customs, abolish our religious rites and temple service? Hast thou spoken these blasphemous things against Moses, and against God? Here was some color of justice; for Stephen was permitted to defend himself. And, in order to do this he thought it best to enter into a detail of their history from the commencement of their nation; and thus show how kindly God had dealt with them, and how ungraciously they and their fathers had requited Him. And all this naturally led him to the conclusion, that God could no longer bear with a people the cup of whose iniquity had been long overflowing; and therefore they might expect to find wrath, without mixture of mercy.
But how could St. Luke get all this circumstantial account? He might have been present, and heard the whole; or, more probably, he had the account from St. Paul, whose companion he was, and who was certainly present when St. Stephen was judged and stoned, for he was consenting to his death, and kept the clothes of them who stoned him. See Act 7:58; Act 8:1; Act 22:20.
Men, brethren, and fathers - Rather, brethren and fathers, for ανδρες should not be translated separately from αδελφοι. Literally it is men-brethren, a very usual form in Greek; for every person knows that ανδρες Αθηναιοι and ανδρες Περσαι should not be translated men-Athenians and men-Persians, but simply Athenians and Persians. See Act 17:22. So, in Luk 2:15, ανθρωποι ποιμενες should be translated shepherds, not men-shepherds. And ανθρωπος βασιλευς Mat 18:23, should not be translated man-king, but king, simply. By translating as we do, men, brethren, and fathers, and putting a comma after men, we make Stephen address three classes, when in fact there were but two: the elders and scribes, whom he addressed as fathers; and the common people, whom he calls brethren. See Bp. Pearce, and see Act 8:27.
The God of glory appeared, etc. - As Stephen was now vindicating himself from the false charges brought against him, he shows that he had uttered no blasphemy, either against God, Moses, or the temple; but states that his accusers, and the Jews in general, were guilty of the faults with which they charged him: that they had from the beginning rejected and despised Moses, and had always violated his laws. He proceeds to state that there is no blasphemy in saying that the temple shall be destroyed: they had been without a temple till the days of David; nor does God ever confine himself to temples built by hands, seeing he fills both heaven and earth; that Jesus is the prophet of whom Moses spoke, and whom they had persecuted, condemned, and at last put to death; that they were wicked and uncircumcised in heart and in ears, and always resisted the Holy Ghost as their fathers did. This is the substance of St. Stephen's defense as far as he was permitted to make it: a defense which they could not confute; containing charges which they most glaringly illustrated and confirmed, by adding the murder of this faithful disciple to that of his all-glorious Master.
Was in Mesopotamia - In that part of it where Ur of the Chaldees was situated, near to Babel, and among the rivers, (Tigris and Euphrates), which gave the name of Mesopotamia to the country. See the note on Gen 11:31.
Before he dwelt in Charran - This is called Haran in our translation of Gen 11:31; this place also belonged to Mesopotamia, as well as Ur, but is placed west of it on the maps. It seems most probable that Abraham had two calls, one in Ur, and the other in Haran. He left Ur at the first call, and came to Haran; he left Haran at the second call, and came into the promised land. See these things more particularly stated in the notes on Gen 12:1 (note).
When his father was dead - See the note on Gen 11:26.
Gave him none inheritance - Both Abraham and Jacob had small parcels of land in Canaan; but they had them by purchase, not by God's gift; for, as Abraham was obliged to buy a burying-place in Canaan, Genesis 23:3-18, it is obvious he had no inheritance there.
And to his seed after him - See Gen 12:7 (note); Gen 13:15, and the notes there.
That his seed should sojourn in a strange land - See Gen 15:13, Gen 15:14.
Four hundred years - Moses says, Exo 12:40, that the sojourning of the children of Israel in Egypt - was 430 years. See the note there. St. Paul has the same number, Gal 3:17; and so has Josephus, Ant. lib. ii. cap. 1, sect. 9; in Bell. lib. v. cap. 9, sect. 4. St. Stephen uses the round number of 400, leaving out the odd tens, a thing very common, not only in the sacred writers, but in all others, those alone excepted who write professedly on chronological matters.
Will I judge - Κρινω εγω, I will punish, for in this sense the Greek word is frequently taken. "When," says Bp. Pearce, "a malefactor is brought before a judge, the judge does three things:
1. he tries or judges him;
2. he then gives his judgment or sentence; and,
3. he puts the law in execution, and punishes him.
Hence κρινω, at different times, signifies each of these things; and the sense of the word is to be determined by the context. Here it signifies to punish, as κριμα is used for punishment, in Rom 13:2; Co1 11:29, compared with Co1 11:30, Co1 11:31." The Egyptians, to whom the Israelites were in bondage, were punished by the ten plagues, described Exodus 7:19-12:30.
He gave him the covenant of circumcision - That is, he instituted the rite of circumcision, as a sign of that covenant which he had made with him and his posterity. See Gen 17:10, etc.
And so Abraham begat Isaac - Και οὑτως, And thus, in this covenant, he begat Isaac; and as a proof that he was born under this covenant, was a true son of Abraham and inheritor of the promises, he circumcised him the eighth day; and this rite being observed in the family of Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons were born under the covenant; and thus their descendants, the twelve tribes, being born under the same covenant, and practising the same rite, were, by the ordinance of Gods legal inheritors of the promised land, and all the secular and spiritual advantages connected with it.
And the patriarchs - The twelve sons of Jacob, thus called because each was chief or head of his respective family or tribe.
Moved with envy - Ζηλωσαντες. We translate ζηλος variously: zeal or fervent affection, whether its object be good or bad, is its general meaning; and ζηλοω signifies to be indignant, envious, etc. See the note on Act 5:17. The brethren of Joseph, hearing of his dreams, and understanding them to portend his future advancement, filled with envy, (with which no ordinary portion of malice was associated), sold Joseph into the land of Egypt, hoping by this means to prevent his future grandeur; but God, from whom the portents came, was with him, and made their envy the direct means of accomplishing the great design.
Gave him favor and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh - God gave him much wisdom, in consequence of which he had favor with the king of Egypt. See the whole of this remarkable history explained at large, Genesis 41:1-45:28 (note).
Threescore and fifteen souls - There are several difficulties here, which it is hoped the reader will find satisfactorily removed in the note on Gen 46:20 (note). It is well known that in Gen 46:27, and in Deu 10:22, their number is said to be threescore and ten; but Stephen quotes from the Septuagint, which adds five persons to the account which are not in the Hebrew text, Machir, Gilead, Sutelaam, Taham, and Edem; but see the note referred to above.
And were carried over to Sychem - "It is said, Gen 50:13, that Jacob was buried in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre. And in Jos 24:32, and Exo 13:19, it is said that the bones of Joseph were carried out of Egypt by the Israelites, and buried in Shechem, which Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem. As for the eleven brethren of Joseph, we are told by Josephus, Ant. lib. ii. cap. 8. sect. 2, that they were buried in Hebron, where their father had been buried. But, since the books of the Old Testament say nothing about this, the authority of Stephen (or of Luke here) for their being buried in Sychem is at least as good as that of Josephus for their being buried in Hebron." - Bp. Pearce.
We have the uniform consent of the Jewish writers that all the patriarchs were brought out of Egypt, and buried in Canaan, but none, except Stephen, mentions their being buried in Sychem. As Sychem belonged to the Samaritans, probably the Jews thought it too great an honor for that people to possess the bones of the patriarchs; and therefore have carefully avoided making any mention of it. This is Dr. Lightfoot's conjecture; and it is as probable as any other.
That Abraham bought for a sum of money - Two accounts seem here to be confounded:
1. The purchase made by Abraham of the cave and field of Ephron, which was in the field of Machpelah: this purchase was made from the children of Heth, Gen 23:3, Gen 23:10, Gen 23:17.
2. The purchase made by Jacob, from the sons of Hamor or Emmor, of a sepulchre in which the bones of Joseph were laid: this was in Sychem or Shechem, Gen 33:19; Jos 24:32.
The word Abraham, therefore, in this place, is certainly a mistake; and the word Jacob, which some have supplied, is doubtless more proper. Bp. Pearce supposes that Luke originally wrote, ὁ ωνησατο τιμης αργυριου, which he bought for a sum of money: i.e. which Jacob bought, who is the last person, of the singular number, spoken of in the preceding verse. Those who saw that the word ωνησατο, bought, had no nominative case joined to it, and did not know where to find the proper one, seem to have inserted Αβρααμ, Abraham, in the text, for that purpose, without sufficiently attending to the different circumstances of his purchase from that of Jacob's.
Which knew not Joseph - That is, did not approve of him, of his mode of governing the kingdom, nor of his people, nor of his God. See the note on Exo 1:8.
The same dealt subtilty - Οὑτος κατασοφισαμενος, A word borrowed from the Septuagint, who thus translate the Hebrew נהחכמה לו nithchokmah lo, let us deal wisely with it, i.e. with cunning and deceit, as the Greek word implies; and which is evidently intended by the Hebrew. See Gen 27:35, Thy brother came with subtilty, which the Targumist explains by בחוכמא be-chokma, with wisdom, that is, cunning and deceit. For this the Egyptians were so remarkable that αιγυπτιαζειν, to Egyptize, signified to act cunningly, and to use wicked devices. Hence the Jews compared them to foxes; and it is of them that Canticles, Sol 2:15, is understood by the rabbins: Take us the little foxes which spoil our vines; destroy the Egyptians, who, having slain our male children, sought to destroy the name of Israel from the face of the earth.
To the end they might not live - Might not grow up and propagate, and thus build up the Hebrew nation.
Moses - was exceeding fair - ΑϚειος τῳ Θεῳ, Was fair to God, i.e. was divinely beautiful. See the note on Exo 2:2.
In all the wisdom of the Egyptians - Who were, at that time, the most intelligent and best instructed people in the universe. Philo says, Moses was taught arithmetic, geometry, poetry, music, medicine, and the knowledge of hieroglyphics. In Sohar Cadash, fol. 46, it is said, "that, of the ten portions of wisdom which came into the world, the Egyptians had nine, and that all the inhabitants of the earth had only the remaining portion." Much of the same nature may be seen in the rabbins, though they apply the term wisdom here to magic.
Was mighty in words and in deeds - This may refer to the glorious doctrines he taught, and the miracles he wrought in Egypt. Josephus Ant. lib. ii. cap. 10, sect. 1, gives an account of his being general of an Egyptian army, defeating the Ethiopians, who had invaded Egypt, driving them back into their own country, and taking Saba their capital, which was afterwards called Meroe. But this, like many other tales of the same writer, is worthy of little credit.
Phoenix says the same of Achilles: -
Μυθων τε ῥητηρ' εμεναι, πρηκτηρα τε εργων.
Il. ix. v. 443.
Not only an orator of words, but a performer of deeds.
When he was full forty years old - This was a general tradition among the Jews: "Moses was forty years in Pharaoh's court, forty years in Midian, and forty years he served Israel."
To visit his brethren - Probably on the ground of trying to deliver them from their oppressive bondage. This desire seems to have been early infused into his mind by the Spirit of God; and the effect of this desire to deliver his oppressed countrymen was his refusing to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter - see Heb 11:24, and thus renouncing all right to the Egyptian crown, choosing rather to endure addiction with the people of God than enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.
Smote the Egyptian - See this explained, Exo 2:11, Exo 2:12 (note).
He supposed his brethren would have understood, etc. - He probably imagined that, as he felt from the Divine influence he was appointed to be their deliverer, they would have his Divine appointment signified to them in a similar way; and the act of justice which he now did in behalf of his oppressed countryman would be sufficient to show them that he was now ready to enter upon his office, if they were willing to concur.
Unto them as they strove - Two Hebrews, See on Exo 2:13 (note), etc.
In a flame of fire in a bush - See this and the following verses largely explained in the notes on Exo 3:1-8 (note).
He brought them out, after that he had showed wonders, etc. - Thus the very person whom they had rejected, and, in effect, delivered up into the hands of Pharaoh that he might be slain, was the person alone by whom they were redeemed from their Egyptian bondage. And does not St. Stephen plainly say by this, that the very person, Jesus Christ, whom they had rejected and delivered up into the hands of Pilate to be crucified, was the person alone by whom they could be delivered out of their spiritual bondage, and made partakers of the inheritance among the saints in light? No doubt they felt that this was the drift of his speech.
This is that Moses, which said - A prophet, etc. - This very Moses, so highly esteemed and honored by God, announced that very prophet whom ye have lately put to death. See the observations at Deu 18:22 (note).
With the angel which spake to him - Stephen shows that Moses received the law by the ministry of angels; and that he was only a mediator between the angel of God and them.
The lively oracles - Λογια ζωντα, The living oracles. The doctrines of life, those doctrines - obedience to which entitled them, by the promise of God, to a long life upon earth, which spoke to them of that spiritual life which every true believer has in union with his God, and promised that eternal life which those who are faithful unto death shall enjoy with him in the realms of glory.
The Greek word λογιον, which we translate oracle, signifies a Divine revelation, a communication from God himself, and is here applied to the Mosaic law; to the Old Testament in general, Rom 3:2; Heb 5:12; and to Divine revelation in general, Pe1 4:11.
In their hearts turned back again into Egypt - Became idolaters, and preferred their Egyptian bondage and their idolatry to the promised land and the pure worship of God. See the whole of these transactions explained at large in the notes on Exodus 32:1-35 (note).
Then God turned, and gave them up, etc. - He left them to themselves, and then they deified and worshipped the sun, moon, planets, and principal stars.
In the book of the prophets - As this quotation is found in Amos, Amo 5:25, by the book of the prophets is meant the twelve minor prophets, which, in the ancient Jewish division of the sacred writings, formed only one book.
Have ye offered to me slain beasts - It is certain that the Israelites did offer various sacrifices to God, while in the wilderness; and it is as certain that they scarcely ever did it with an upright heart. They were idolatrous, either in heart or act, in almost all their religious services; these were therefore so very imperfect that they were counted for nothing in the sight of God; for this seems to be strongly implied in the question here asked, Have ye offered to Me (exclusively and with an upright heart) slain beasts and sacrifices by the space of forty years? On the contrary, these forty years were little else than a tissue of rebellion and idolatry.
Ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, figures which ye made to worship them - This is a literal translation of the place, as it stands in the Septuagint; but in the Hebrew text it stands thus: But ye have borne the tabernacle of your Molech, and Chiun, your images, the star of your god which ye made to yourselves. This is the simple version of the place, unless we should translate ונסאתם את סכות מלככם venasatem eth Siccuth malkekem, ye took Sikuth your king, (instead of ye took up the tabernacle of your Molek), as some have done. The place is indeed very obscure, and the two texts do not tend to cast light on each other. The rabbins say siccuth, which we translate tabernacle, is the name of an idol. Molech is generally understood to mean the sun; and several persons of good judgment think that by Remphan or Raiphan is meant the planet Saturn, which the Copts call Ῥηφαν, Rephan. It will be seen above that instead of Remphan, or, as some of the best MSS. have it, Rephan, the Hebrew text has כיון Chiun, which might possibly be a corruption of ריפן Reiphan, as it would be very easy to mistake the כ caph for ר resh, and the vau shurek ו for פ pe. This emendation would bring the Hebrew, Septuagint, and the text of Luke, nearer together; but there is no authority either from MSS. or versions for this correction: however, as Chiun is mentioned in no other place, though Molech often occurs, it is the more likely that there might have been some very early mistake in the text, and that the Septuagint has preserved the true reading.
It was customary for the idolaters of all nations to carry images of their gods about them in their journeys, military expeditions, etc.; and these, being very small, were enclosed in little boxes, perhaps some of them in the shape of temples, called tabernacles; or, as we have it, Act 19:24, shrines. These little gods were the penates and lares among the Romans, and the tselems or talismans among the ancient eastern idolaters. The Hebrew text seems to refer to these when it says, the tabernacle of your Molech, and Chiun, your images, צלמיכם tsalmeycem, your tselems, τους τυπους, the types or simulachres of your gods. See the note on Gen 31:19. Many of those small portable images are now in my own collection, all of copper or brass; some of them the identical penates of the ancient Romans, and others the offspring of the Hindoo idolatry; they are from an ounce weight to half a pound. Such images as these I suppose the idolatrous Israelites, in imitation of their neighbors, the Moabites, Ammonites, etc., to have carried about with them; and to such the prophet appears to me unquestionably to allude.
I will carry you away beyond Babylon - You have carried your idolatrous images about; and I will carry you into captivity, and see if the gods in whom ye have trusted can deliver you from my hands. Instead of beyond Babylon, Amos, from whom the quotation is made, says, I will carry you beyond Damascus. Where they were carried was into Assyria and Media, see Kg2 17:6 : now, this was not only beyond Damascus, but beyond Babylon itself; and, as Stephen knew this to be the fact, he states it here, and thus more precisely fixes the place of their captivity. The Holy Spirit, in his farther revelations, has undoubted right to extend or illustrate those which he had given before. This case frequently occurs when a former prophecy is quoted in later times.
Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness - That is, the tabernacle in which the two tables of stone written by the finger of God were laid up, as a testimony that he had delivered these laws to the people, and that they had promised to obey them. As one great design of St. Stephen was to show the Jews that they placed too much dependence on outward privileges, and had not used the law, the tabernacle, the temple, nor the temple service, for the purpose of their institution, he labors to bring them to a due sense of this, that conviction might lead to repentance and conversion. And he farther shows that God did not confine his worship to one place, or form. He was worshipped without any shrine in the times of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc. He was worshipped with a tabernacle, or portable temple, in the wilderness. He was worshipped also in the fixed temple projected by David, but built by Solomon. He asserts farther that his infinite majesty cannot be confined to temples, made by human hands; and where there is neither tabernacle nor temple, (in any part of his vast dominions), he may be worshipped acceptably by the upright in heart. Thus he proves that neither tabernacle nor temple are essentially requisite for the true worship of the true God. Concerning the tabernacle to which St. Stephen here refers, the reader is requested to consult the notes on Exo 25:8, etc., and the subsequent chapters.
Speaking unto Moses - Ὁ λαλων, Who spake, as in the margin; signifying the angel of God who spake to Moses, or God himself. See Exo 25:40.
Brought in with Jesus - That is, with Joshua, whom the Greek version, quoted by St. Stephen, always writes Ιησους, Jesus, but which should constantly be written Joshua in such cases as the present, in order to avoid ambiguity and confusion.
Possession of the Gentiles - Των εθνων, of the heathens, whom Joshua conquered, and gave their land to the children of Israel.
Desired to find a tabernacle - This was in David's heart, and it met with the Divine approbation: see Sa2 7:2, etc., and see the purpose, Psa 132:2-5; but, as David had been a man of war, and had shed much blood, God would not permit him to build the temple; but he laid the plan and made provision for it, and Solomon executed the design.
The Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands - Here St. Stephen evidently refers to Solomon's speech, Kg1 8:27. But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven, and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee, how much less this house that I have builded? Both Solomon and St. Stephen mean that the majesty of God could not be contained, not even in the whole vortex of nature; much less in any temple which human hands could erect.
As saith the prophet - The place referred to is Isa 66:1, Isa 66:2 : Thus saith the Lord, the heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool. Where is the house that ye build unto me? And where is the place of my rest, etc., with which the quotation by Stephen agrees.
Hath not my hand made all these things? - Stephen certainly had not finished his discourse, nor drawn his inferences from the facts already stated; but it is likely that, as they perceived he was about to draw conclusions unfavourable to the temple and its ritual, they immediately raised up a clamor against him, which was the cause of the following very cutting address.
Ye stiff-necked - Σκληροτραχηλοι. A metaphor taken from untoward oxen, who cannot be broken into the yoke; and whose strong necks cannot be bended to the right or the left.
Uncircumcised in heart and ears - This was a Jewish mode of speech, often used by the prophets. Circumcision was instituted, not only as a sign and seal of the covenant into which the Israelites entered with their Maker, but also as a type of that purity and holiness which the law of God requires; hence there was an excision of what was deemed not only superfluous but also injurious; and by this cutting off, the propensity to that crime which ruins the body, debases the mind, and was generally the forerunner of idolatry, was happily lessened. It would be easy to prove this, were not the subject too delicate. Where the spirit of disobedience was found, where the heart was prone to iniquity, and the ears impatient of reproof and counsel, the person is represented as uncircumcised in those parts, because devoted to iniquity, impatient of reproof, and refusing to obey. In Pirkey Eliezer, chap. 29, "Rabbi Seira said, There are five species of uncircumcision in the world; four in man, and one in trees. Those in man are the following: -
"1. Uncircumcision of the Ear. Behold, their Ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken, Jer 6:10.
"2. The uncircumcision of the Lips. How shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised Lips? Exo 6:12.
"3. Uncircumcision of Heart. If then their uncircumcised Hearts be humbled, Lev 26:41. Circumcise therefore the Foreskin of Your Heart, Deu 10:16; Jer 4:4. For all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the Heart, Jer 9:26.
"4. The uncircumcision of the Flesh. Ye shall circumcise the Flesh of your Foreskin, etc., Gen 17:11."
Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost -
1. Because they were uncircumcised in heart, they always resisted the influences of the Holy Spirit, bringing light and conviction to their minds; in consequence of which they became hardened through the deceitfulness of sin, and neither repented at the preaching of John, nor credited the glad tidings told them by Christ and the apostles.
2. Because they were uncircumcised in ears, they would neither hear nor obey Moses, the prophets, Christ, nor the apostles.
As your fathers did, so do ye - They were disobedient children, of disobedient parents: in all their generations they had been disobedient and perverse. This whole people, as well as this text, are fearful proofs that the Holy Spirit, the almighty energy of the living God, may be resisted and rendered of none effect. This Spirit is not sent to stocks, stones, or machines, but to human beings endued with rational souls; therefore it is not to work on them with that irresistible energy which it must exert on inert matter, in order to conquer the vis inertiae or disposition to abide eternally in a motionless state, which is the state of all inanimate beings; but it works upon understanding, will, judgment, conscience, etc., in order to enlighten, convince, and persuade. If, after all, the understanding, the eye of the mind, refuses to behold the light; the will determines to remain obstinate; the judgment purposes to draw false inferences; and the conscience hardens itself against every check and remonstrance, (and all this is possible to a rational soul, which must be dealt with in a rational way), then the Spirit of God, being thus resisted, is grieved, and the sinner is left to reap the fruit of his doings. To force the man to see, feel, repent, believe, and be saved, would be to alter the essential principles of his creation and the nature of mind, and reduce him into the state of a machine, the vis inertiae of which was to be overcome and conducted by a certain quantum of physical force, superior to that resistance which would be the natural effect of the certain quantum of the vis inertiae possessed by the subject on and by which this agent was to operate. Now, man cannot be operated on in this way, because it is contrary to the laws of his creation and nature; nor can the Holy Ghost work on that as a machine which himself has made a free agent. Man therefore may, and generally does, resist the Holy Ghost; and the whole revelation of God bears unequivocal testimony to this most dreadful possibility, and most awful truth. It is trifling with the sacred text to say that resisting the Holy Ghost here means resisting the laws of Moses, the exhortations, threatenings, and promises of the prophets, etc. These, it is true, the uncircumcised ear may resist; but the uncircumcised heart is that alone to which the Spirit that gave the laws, exhortations, promises, etc;, speaks; and, as matter resists matter, so spirit resists spirit. These were not only uncircumcised in ear, but uncircumcised also in heart; and therefore they resisted the Holy Ghost, not only in his declarations and institutions, but also in his actual energetic operations upon their minds.
Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? - Ye have not only resisted the Holy Ghost, but ye have persecuted all those who have spoken to you in his name, and by his influence: thus ye prove your opposition to the Spirit himself, by your opposition to every thing that proceeds from him.
They have slain them, etc. - Isaiah, who showed before of the coming of Christ, the Jews report, was sawn asunder at the command of Manasseh.
The coming of the Just One - Του δικαιου, Meaning Jesus Christ; emphatically called the just or righteous person, not only because of the unspotted integrity of his heart and life, but because of his plenary acquittal, when tried at the tribunal of Pilate: I find no fault at all in him. The mention of this circumstance served greatly to aggravate their guilt. The character of Just One is applied to our Lord in three other places of Scripture: Act 3:14; Act 22:14; and Jam 5:6.
The betrayers and murderers - Ye first delivered him up into the hands of the Romans, hoping they would have put him to death; but, when they acquitted him, then, in opposition to the declaration of his innocence, and in outrage to every form of justice, ye took and murdered him. This was a most terrible charge; and one against which they could set up no sort of defense. No wonder, then, that they were instigated by the spirit of the old destroyer, which they never resisted, to add another murder to that of which they had been so recently guilty.
By the disposition of angels - Εις διαταγας αγγελων. After all that has been said on this difficult passage, perhaps the simple meaning is, that there were ranks, διαταγαι, of angels attending on the Divine Majesty when he gave the law: a circumstance which must have added greatly to the grandeur and solemnity of the occasion; and to this Psa 68:17 seems to me most evidently to allude: The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even many thousands of angels: the Lord is among them as in Sinai, in the holy place. It was not then by the mouths nor by the hands of angels, as prime agents, that Moses, and through him the people, received the law; but God himself gave it, accompanied with many thousands of those glorious beings. As it is probable they might be assisting in this most glorious solemnity, therefore St. Paul might say, Gal 3:19, that it was ordained by angels, διαταγεις δι' αγγελων, in the hand of a Mediator. And as they were the only persons that could appear, for no man hath seen God at any time, therefore the apostle might say farther, (if indeed he refers to the same transaction, see the note there), the word spoken by angels was steadfast, Heb 2:2. But the circumstances of this case are not sufficiently plain to lead to the knowledge of what was done by the angels in this most wonderful transaction; only we learn, from the use made of this circumstance by St. Stephen, that it added much to the enormity of their transgression, that they did not keep a law, in dispensing of which the ministry of angels had been employed. Some think Moses, Aaron, and Joshua are the angels here intended; and others think that the fire, light, darkness, cloud and thick darkness were the angels which Jehovah used on this occasion, and to which St. Stephen refers; but neither of these senses appears sufficiently natural, and particularly the latter.
They were cut to the heart - Διεπριοντο, They were sawn through. See the note on Act 5:33.
They gnashed on him with their teeth - They were determined to hear him no longer; were filled with rage against him, and evidently thirsted for his blood.
Saw the glory of God - The Shekinah, the splendor or manifestation of the Divine Majesty.
And Jesus standing on the right hand of God - In his official character, as Mediator between God and man. Stephen had this revelation while in the Sanhedrin; for as yet he had not been forced out of the city. See Act 7:58.
They - stopped their ears - As a proof that he had uttered blasphemy, because he said, He saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. This was a fearful proof against them; for if Jesus was at the right hand of God, then they had murdered an innocent person; and they must infer that God's justice must speedily avenge his death. They were determined not to suffer a man to live any longer who could say he saw the heavens opened and Jesus Christ standing at the right hand of God.
Cast him out of the city, and stoned him - They did not however wait for any sentence to be pronounced upon him; it seems they were determined to stone him first, and then prove, after it had been done, that it was done justly. For the manner of stoning among the Jews, see the note on Lev 24:23.
The witnesses laid down their clothes - To illustrate this whole transaction, see the observations at the end of this chapter.
And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God - The word God is not found in any MS. or version, nor in any of the primitive fathers except Chrysostom. It is not genuine, and should not be inserted here: the whole sentence literally reads thus: And they stoned Stephen, invoking and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit! Here is a most manifest proof that prayer is offered to Jesus Christ; and that in the most solemn circumstances in which it could be offered, viz., when a man was breathing his last. This is, properly speaking, one of the highest acts of worship which can be offered to God; and, if Stephen had not conceived Jesus Christ to be God, could he have committed his soul into his hands?
We may farther observe that this place affords a full proof of the immateriality of the soul; for he could not have commended his spirit to Christ, had he believed that he had no spirit, or, in other words, that his body and soul were one and the same thing. Allowing this most eminent saint to have had a correct notion of theology, and that, being full of the Holy Ghost, as he was at this time, he could make no mistake in matters of such vast weight and importance, then these two points are satisfactorily stated in this verse:
1. That Jesus Christ is God; for Stephen died praying to him.
2. That the soul is immaterial; for Stephen, in dying, commends his departing spirit into the hand of Christ.
He kneeled down - That he might die as the subject of his heavenly Master - acting and suffering in the deepest submission to his Divine will and permissive providence; and, at the same time, showing the genuine nature of the religion of his Lord, in pouring out his prayers with his blood in behalf of his murderers!
Lay not this sin to their charge - That is, do not impute it to them so as to exact punishment. How much did the servant resemble his Lord, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do! This was the cry of our Lord in behalf of his murderers; and the disciple, closely copying his Master, in the same spirit, and with the same meaning, varies the expression, crying with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge! What an extent of benevolence! And in what a beautiful light does this place the spirit of the Christian religion! Christ had given what some have supposed to be an impossible command; Love your enemies; pray for them that despitefully use and persecute you. And Stephen shows here, in his own person, how practicable the grace of his Master had made this sublime precept.
He fell asleep - This was a common expression among the Jews to signify death, and especially the death of good men. But this sleep is, properly speaking, not attributable to the soul, but to the body; for he had commended his spirit to the Lord Jesus, while his body was overwhelmed with the shower of stones cast on him by the mob.
After the word εκοιμηθη, fell asleep, one MS. adds, εν ειρηνῃ, in peace; and the Vulgate has, in Domino, in the Lord. Both these readings are true, as to the state of St. Stephen; but I believe neither of them was written by St. Luke.
The first clause of the next chapter should come in here, And Saul was consenting unto his death: never was there a worse division than that which separated it from the end of this chapter: this should be immediately altered, and the amputated member restored to the body to which it belongs.
1. Though I have spoken pretty much at large on the punishment of stoning among the Jews, in the note on Lev 24:23, yet, as the following extracts will serve to bring the subject more fully into view, in reference to the case of St. Stephen, the reader will not be displeased to find them here. Dr. Lightfoot sums up the evidence he has collected on this subject, in the following particulars: -
"I. The place of stoning was without the sanhedrin, according as it is said, bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp, Lev 24:14. It is a tradition, the place of stoning was without three camps. The gloss tells us that the court was the camp of the Divine Presence; the mountain of the temple, the camp of the Levites; and Jerusalem, the camp of Israel. Now, in every sanhedrin, in whatever city, the place of stoning was without the city, as it was at Jerusalem.
We are told the reason by the Gemarists, why the place of stoning was without the sanhedrin, and again without three camps: viz. If the Sanhedrin go forth and sit without the three camps, they make the place for stoning also distant from the sanhedrin, partly lest the sanhedrin should seem to kill the man; partly, that by the distance of the place there may be a little stop and space of time before the criminal come to the place of execution, if peradventure any one might offer some testimony that might make for him; for in the expectation of some such thing: -
"II. There stood one at the door of the sanhedrin having a handkerchief in his hand, and a horse at such a distance as it was only within sight. If any one therefore say, I have something to offer in behalf of the condemned person, he waves the handkerchief, and the horseman rides and calls back the people. Nay, if the man himself say, I have something to offer in my own defense, they bring him back four or five times one after another, if it be any thing of moment that he hath to say." I doubt they hardly dealt so gently with the innocent Stephen.
"III. If no testimony arise that makes any thing for him, then they go on to stoning him: the crier proclaiming before him, 'N. the son of N. comes forth to be stoned for such or such a crime. N. and N. are the witnesses against him; if any one have any thing to testify in his behalf, let him come forth and give his evidence.'
"IV. When they come within ten cubits of the place where he must be stoned, they exhort him to confess, for so it is the custom for the malefactor to confess, because every one that confesseth hath his part in the world to come, as we find in the instance of Achan, etc.
"V. When they come within four cubits of the place, they strip off his clothes, and make him naked.
"VI. The place of execution was twice a man's height. One of the witnesses throws him down upon his loins; if he roll on his breast, they turn him on his loins again. If he die so, well. If not, then the other witness takes up a stone, and lays it upon his heart. If he die so, well. If not, he is stoned by all Israel.
"VII. All that are stoned, are handed also, etc." These things I thought fit to transcribe the more largely, that the reader may compare this present action with this rule and common usage of doing it.
"1. It may be questioned for what crime this person was condemned to die? You will say for blasphemy for the have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God. But no one is condemned as a blasphemer, unless for abusing the sacred name with four letters, viz. יהוה YeHoVaH. Hence it is that although they oftentimes accused our Savior as a blasphemer, yet he was not condemned for this, but because he used witchcraft and deceived Israel, and seduced them into apostasy. And those are reckoned among persons that are to be stoned: He that evilly persuades; and he that draws into apostasy; and he that is a conjuror.
"2. It may farther be questioned whether our blessed martyr was condemned by any formal sentence of the sanhedrin, or hurried in a tumultuary manner by the people; and so murdered: it seems to be the latter."
2. The defense of Stephen against the charges produced by his accusers must be considered as being indirect; as they had a show of truth for the ground of their accusations, it would have been improper at once to have roundly denied the charge. There is no doubt that Stephen had asserted and proved Jesus to be the Christ or Messiah; and that the whole nation should consider him as such, receive his doctrine, obey him, or expose themselves to the terrible sentence denounced in the prophecy of Moses: Whosoever will not hearken unto my words, which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him, Deu 18:19; for they well knew that this word implied that Divine judgments should inevitably fall upon them. To make proper way for this conclusion, Stephen enters into a detail of their history, showing that, from the beginning, God had in view the dispensation which was now opening, and that his designs were uniformly opposed by their impious forefathers. That, notwithstanding all this, God carried on his work:
First, by revealing his will to Abraham, and giving him the rite of circumcision, which was to be preserved among his descendants.
Secondly, to Moses and Aaron in Egypt.
Thirdly, to the whole congregation of Israel at Mount Sinai, and variously in the wilderness.
Fourthly, by instituting the tabernacle worship, which was completed in the promised land, and continued till the days of Solomon, when the temple was builded, and the worship of God became fixed.
Fifthly, by the long race of prophets raised up under that temple, who had been all variously persecuted by their forefathers, who departed from the true worship, and frequently became idolatrous; in consequence of which God gave them up into the hands of their enemies, and they were carried into captivity.
How far St. Stephen would have proceeded, or to what issue he would have brought his discourse, we can only conjecture, as the fury of his persecutors did not permit him to come to a conclusion. But this they saw most clearly, that, from his statement, they could expect no mercy at the hand of God, if they persisted in their opposition to Jesus of Nazareth, and that their temple and political existence must fall a sacrifice to their persevering obstinacy. Their guilt stung them to the heart, and they were determined rather to vent their insupportable feelings by hostile and murderous acts, than in penitential sorrow and supplication for mercy. The issue was the martyrdom of Stephen; a man of whom the sacred writings give the highest character, and a man who illustrated that character in every part of his conduct. Stephen is generally called the proto-martyr, i.e. the First martyr or witness, as the word μαρτυρ implies; the person who, at the evident risk and ultimate loss of his life, bears testimony to Truth. This honor, however, may be fairly contested, and the palm at least divided between him and John the Baptist. The martyrdom of Stephen, and the spirit in which he suffered, have been an honor to the cause for which he cheerfully gave up his life, for eighteen hundred years. While Christianity endures, (and it will endure till time is swallowed up in eternity), the martyrdom of Stephen will be the model, as it has been, for all martyrs, and a cause of triumph to the Church of God.
3. I cannot close these observations without making one remark on his prayer for his murderers. Though this shows most forcibly the amiable, forgiving spirit of the martyr, yet we must not forget that this, and all the excellent qualities with which the mind of this blessed man was endued, proceeded from that Holy Ghost of whose influences his mind was full. The prayer therefore shows most powerfully the matchless benevolence of God. Even these most unprincipled, most impious, and most brutal of all murderers, were not out of the reach of His mercy! His Spirit influenced the heart of this martyr to pray for his destroyers; and could such prayers fail? No: Saul of Tarsus, in all probability was the first fruits of them. St. Augustine has properly remarked, Si Stephanus non orasset, ecclesia Paulum non haberet. If Stephen had not prayed, the Church of Christ could not have numbered among her saints the apostle of the Gentiles. Let this example teach us at once the spirit that becomes a disciple of Christ, the efficacy of prayer, and the unbounded philanthropy of God.